Books / Reviews MAGAZINE | JUN 01, 2009
Best Heard On 78 RPM
India's greatest living singer, Lata will be celebrated. But a hagiographic Q&A cannot stand for a biography.
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LATA MANGESHKAR...IN HER OWN VOICE
NASREEN MUNNI KABIR
PAGES: 269; RS. 1,500
First the statistics: Until the 1991 edition, when her entry disappeared, the Guinness Book of Records listed Lata Mangeshkar as having sung no less than 30,000 solo, duets and chorus-backed songs. That made her easily the most recorded artiste in the world. I will get back to that later.
Lata started as a child actress to support her impoverished family and had small roles in eight Marathi and Hindi films. She hated acting and turned to singing. Her early songs were forgettable until composers Khemchand Prakash, Naushad Ali and Shankar Jaikishan discovered her more or less at the same time. Her first big hit was Aayega aanewala but HMV attributed the recording not to Lata but to 'Kamini', the character Madhubala played in Mahal. The huge success of her songs in two films that rapidly followed, Mehboob Khan's Andaz and Raj Kapoor's Barsaat, ensured her uncontested reign as the queen of playback for the next 50 years or so.
Lata has sung in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and 32 other languages, including Swahili, Russian and Fijian! "Beta, tum ne aaj mujhe rula diya," Nehru said to her after she sang Ae mere watan ke logon following the 1962 war with China. She received the Bharat Ratna in 2001. Lata won five Filmfare awards for playback singing between 1958 and 1969 before she asked the publication to take her name out of consideration.
Many things about the lady are endearing. She is not pretentious, lives simply and is very devoted to her siblings and their children. When she is recording a song, she leaves her chappals at the studio door as if she was entering a temple. She sang barefoot at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Singing is a form of worship for her, an act of devotion to Saraswati. She will also sing in praise of sarkar-e-madina.
Two blemishes: A grateful nation asked her to sing Vande mataram on the fiftieth anniversary of independence but she could not do it without looking at the words on a piece of paper. When Lata was nominated to Rajya Sabha, in 1999, she refused to attend parliamentary sessions. She mistook the nomination for an honour, not an obligation.
I am surprised there have been so few books on this national treasure. There was one 10 years ago, Lata Mangeshkar: A Biography, by Raju Bharatan of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly. Unfortunately, it took a very jaundiced view and read like a vendetta.
Nasreen Munni Kabir's biography, Lata Mangeshkar...in her own voice, goes to the other extreme. She takes everything Lata tells her at face value. There are no penetrating questions; certain aspects of her life are not touched. Perhaps that was part of the deal. It would have been a better book if Kabir had put the material in sections instead of nearly 200 relentless pages of questions and answers. This is a lazy author's idea of a biography.
Lata can be difficult in her professional relations. She refused to sing duets with Rafi for some years. She had extended feuds with composers C. Ramchandra, S.D. Burman, Shyam Sunder as well as Raj Kapoor, people who nurtured her talent. O.P Nayyar, the A.R. Rahman of the 1950s, had to build a whole career without ever using her voice. There have been complaints that Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle have strangled all competition. You get a glimpse of some of these disputes in Kabir's book but it is sanitised and only from the singer's point of view.
As for that Guinness number, the book credits her with a slightly more modest 27,000 recordings. That is still a ridiculous figure. I go along with experts who have calculated that Lata could not possibly have sung more than six to seven thousand songs over a 65-year career, an average of a hundred songs a year. In last ten years, with the onslaught of age and the arrival of a new kind of music, there has been, in fact, a drought in her recordings.
At her prime, she sang like an angel. No one will ever dispute that. "If you take all the fragrance, all the moonlight, all the honey in the universe and put them together, you would still not create a voice like hers," said Javed Akhtar. He must have said that in Urdu but the English translation in this book is good enough for me.